Monday, March 31, 2014

Re-Tooled Yankees Poised for Return to Playoffs

Two words you won't hear much of this season: Alex Rodriguez.

And that is exactly what the Yankees want, to never hear or utter that name anywhere near the 2014 season as they try to return to the playoffs with a brand new look. 

Sure Rodriguez's season long suspension certainly played a large role in Brian Cashman's ability to re-tool the outfield and starting rotation for this year's Yankee club, but make no mistake, the Yankees are happy A-Rod is a distant memory, at least for this year. 

Instead, the 2014 season is about two things. It is about the new guys who are now bearing pinstripes for the first time, and, it's about the last go-round for the face of the franchise: Derek Jeter. 

Jeter announced his intentions to retire before Spring Training started. It marks the end of an incredible era in Yankees baseball, an era that brought five world championships back to the Bronx, and started a generation of fans, the dimensions of which the Yankees, nor any franchise, have seen. 

Every town the Yankees visit this year, Jeter will get bestowed with all kinds of honors and gifts the way Mariano Rivera was last season. While Jeter is not the most personable in public, he will take it like a champ. Rest assure that his final home game as a Yankee in September will be must see television.

 Meanwhile there is a season to play. With Rodriguez and Robinson Cano now out of the picture, the Yankees infield is certainly in flux. The club doesn't have solid answers at either second or third this season. The Yankees hope that Brian Roberts can reclaim the form he once had as an Oriole at second base, and that Kelly Johnson can hit enough in the lineup to justify his stay at third. 

Mark Teixeira is now the most important Yankee on the infield. He missed most of the 2013 season with a wrist injury, and has got to stay healthy and return to the 30/100 hitter that he was previously. Teixeira owns a career .997 fielding percentage, and for a tall man, is very athletic at first base. When he's going well, he's easily one of the game's best fielding first baseman. 

If Teixeira can return to form, he will stabilize the infield, taking pressure off of Roberts and Johnson. Even Jeter won't feel like he has to do too much with his 40-year old body if Tex plays well. 

Sleeper alert: Don't forget that former Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann is behind the plate. He is going to have a very big season in the friendly confines of Yankees Stadium. Watch out. 

The outfield is a different story. In fact, it might be New York's biggest strength. The Yankees spent $247 million on the outfield, signing free agents Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, and extending Brett Gardner for four years, $52 million. Ellsbury gives the Yankees a lead-off hitter for the next seven years, even though he is not a big time stolen base candidate. Ellsbury is a gap-to-gap hitter, who will benefit from hitting in front of the powerful hitters to come in the Yankee lineup. 

As for Beltran, he joins the team he wanted to play for back in 2004, going as far as to throw his old employers the Mets under the bus at his introductory press conference. While he is 36 years old, Beltran still hit 24 home runs last year for St. Louis. If he stays healthy, he will benefit from the short porch in right field when he hits left handed. 

The Yankees also have aging Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano on the team as well. Yankees fans should not expect much from either, but the occasional pinch hit would certainly be in order. Soriano will be the primary DH.

The Yankees rotation might also be a strength this season. CC Sabathia is in the best shape of his career, with his weight below 270 lbs. Some have felt that the weight loss contributed to Sabathia's poor 2013, but fact is the older he gets and healthier he becomes, the weight loss shouldn't be a problem. Sabathia will no longer blow people away with 95 mph fastballs, he's adjusting to life on the corners and was very good this Spring. 

The biggest addition to the rotation, of course is Mashairo Tanaka. Tanaka is 25 years old, and was unstoppable in Japan. While the Yankees paid a fortune for him, if he successfully adjusts to the US game, he will be well worth it. In five spring games, he was 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA, with 26 strikeouts in 21 innings. This guy will be fun to watch. 

Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda round out what could be a very special rotation. Kuroda was excellent in the first half of 2013, while Pineda was once a flame thrower for the Mariners before he was injured two years ago. 

Outlook: The Yankees need a lot of things to go right this year on both sides of the plate. They need the rotation to live up to its lights out potential, and they need David Robertson to settle into the roll as closer, now that Rivera is gone.

This Yankees team is far from perfect, but you get the feeling that Red Sox, Yankees and Rays are all setting themselves up for bigger acquisitions come July 31. 

The Red Sox are the defending champs, but, they are a year older. Outside of Jon Lester and Clay Bucholtz, there is a lot of age in that starting rotation. Plus third base is not exactly solidified with Will Middlebrooks manning the position. Look for Boston to be in the race to get another big arm come July. 

The Rays might have the best trio of starters in David Price, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, but they will need to throw up a lot of zeros to win. The Rays are asking Evan Longoria to carry the offense, having surrounded him with career underachievers like David DeJesus, Will Meyers, Yunel Escobar, and James Loney. The Rays will be in the market for a bat come July for sure. 

So the East in general is not perfect. The Yankees will be in a three-way battle with Tampa and Boston all season long. Expect the Yankees to get a lot of good things from the offense, and some solid performances from their starters to get themselves into one of the two wild cards. 

PREDICTION: 88-74, 2nd wild card in the AL. 

Jacoby Ellsbury - LF
Derek Jeter - SS
Carlos Beltran - RF
Mark Teixiera - 1B
Brian McCann - C 
Alfonso Soriano - DH
Kelly Johnson - 3B
Brian Roberts - 2B
Brett Gardner - CF 

CC Sabathia
Hiroki Kuroda
Mashairo Tanaka
Ivan Nova
Michael Pineda

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